Five years after Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold walked into theirschool and began shooting, Columbine once again found itself in themedia spotlight. Just last week, police arrested two teenagers inDutchtown, La., for an alleged plot to do the same thing to theirhigh school on the anniversary of the Columbine tragedy. Severalindependent films have been released that deal with the subject ofschool violence, each one offering a unique perspective on theissue, from Michael Moore’s controversial documentary Bowlingfor Columbine to Gus Van Sant’s Elephant. However, we seem tobe no closer to answering the question that has eluded us since1999. Why?
Zero Day, by director Ben Coccio, is the fictional video diaryof teenagers Andre Kriegman and Cal Gabriel. On May 1, 2001, this”army of two” executed a meticulously planned attack ontheir high school, shooting and killing 12 people before turningtheir guns on themselves. Closely mirroring the events ofColumbine, Zero Day is a disturbing and provocative movie thatrejects the exploitation of school shooters, yet also doesn’ttry to rationalize their behavior.
Unlike any school shooting before it, the Columbine shootinginvolved a year’s worth of careful planning, complete with avideo diary by Harris and Klebold. This kind of planning was uniqueand almost cinematic in its tragic potential.
With Zero Day, Coccio creates a new perspective on what kind ofperson is capable of committing such a horrifying act, rejectingthe typical media portrayal of violent-minded teenagers.
“The media has always been fixated on Columbine, but moreimportantly, so too, I think, is our society. You can’t watchZero Day in a vacuum – you know what it is‘supposed’ to be about, and that is a big part ofwatching a movie like this, whether you see it now or years fromnow,” Coccio said.
The film isn’t so much about the plot itself, which Andreand Cal refer to as “Zero Day,” as it is about Andre(played by Andre Keuck) and Cal (Calvin Robertson). The tapes they”leave behind” reveal much about their lives andpersonalities, while revealing virtually nothing about theirmotives.
The film itself acts as a study of contrasts. We see theincredible level of detail that goes into their planning, but wealso see the haphazard way that they handle the camera, on whichthey are relying to tell their story after Zero Day. Andre films asCal gets his braces off, a traditional event in the life of ateenager, then we see the two of them explain step by step how toassemble, build and use pipe bombs. The film terrifies bycontrasting the teenagers’ everyday lives with thecold-bloodedness of their plan. As was the situation at Columbine,no one could see it coming until it was already too late.
Zero Day is an intimate movie and completely believable. Andreand Cal’s parents are played by the actors’ real-lifeparents, and every character in the movie has the first name of theactor or actress who plays them. This helps create a completelynatural chemistry amongst the cast, so natural that you have toremind yourself that it’s just a movie. The dialogue isorganic, real and completely devoid of traditional melodramaticemotion. This is due in large part Coccio’s instruction thatthe actors act as they normally do, not as how they thought theircharacters would.
“I think the ‘first-person’ approach reallyenhanced the viewer’s relationship with the characters andthe suspension of disbelief. I think it also ends up making asubtle comment on a media savvy and saturated culture,”Coccio said. “It brings into sharp relief the things weexperience in real life that are much more terrifying than our darkfantasies.”
And much like in real life, there are no easy answers in ZeroDay. The film carefully avoids the temptation of offering a simpleexplanation for Andre and Cal’s behavior. We don’t seethem listening to Marilyn Manson, we don’t see them playingviolent video games, and we don’t see them being picked on byjocks. They address the camera, telling us not to look for reasonsor explanations behind their actions because there aren’tany. They go so far as to burn almost all of their possessions afew nights before the attack, to prevent the police and the mediafrom assigning blame to their music, games or clothes.
When the day finally comes, Andre and Cal leave the camerarunning in the car as they enter the school carrying their arsenalwith them. In what is perhaps the most disturbing sequenceI’ve seen in a long time, we see the attack carried outthrough the motionless security cameras placed throughout theschool. Throughout the entire attack, we hear a diligent 911operator try again and again in vain to reason with the shooters,seemingly oblivious to the fact that they can’t hear her. Inthe end, when they have no one left to shoot, they take their ownlives.
The film is chilling in its reality. It’s hard for us tothink of Columbine shooters Klebold and Harris as real peoplebecause of the distance we feel between our lives and theirs. Mediainfluence has made them appear totally inhuman in the public eye,but the fact remains that they were real people who looked andacted just like everyone else. Try as the news networks might,there is no one reason behind the Columbine shooting. Coccio, bothas writer and director, realizes this and creates a movie thatforces the audience to become intimate with two school shooters.This psychological intimacy is part of what makes the movie sohorrifying — the rest comes from the idea that some thingsare truly without reason, that evil can and will spring up withlittle provocation, and that such terrible violence can come fromthe most unexpected places.